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Woman's job can elevate breast cancer risk

By Linda Stewart

A woman's workplace could massively affect whether she develops breast cancer, scientists in Northern Ireland have discovered.

Some women in industries where they have had long-term exposure to a ‘toxic soup’ of chemicals could be up to five times more at risk of breast cancer than others, the research suggested.

Researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast and the University of Stirling found an increased chance of breast cancer among women working in farming, plastics, food tinning, metalworking, bars, casinos and racecourses.

The study of more than 2,000 women also revealed that women’s working in jobs where they were highly exposed to chemicals for 10 years increased some breast cancer risks by 42%.

The research, involving 1,006 women with breast cancer and 1,147 without the disease, was carried out in Southern Ontario, Canada, and is published in the public health journal Environmental Health today.

It found that women who worked in farming showed a 36% increase in breast cancer risk.

Several pesticides act as mammary carcinogens and many disrupt chemicals in the endocrine system — the network of glands releasing hormones into the body.

Meanwhile, the risk of developing breast cancer doubled for women working in Canadian bars, casinos and racecourses. This may be linked to second-hand smoke exposure in the past.

The risk of developing breast cancer doubled for women working in the Canadian car industry’s plastics manufacturing sector. Among those who were pre-menopausal, the risk was almost five times as great.

Many plastics have been found to release carcinogenic chemicals and cumulative exposures to mixtures of these chemicals are a significant concern.

Many of the chemicals used in plastics manufacturing in Canada are identical to ones used all over the world, including the UK. The UK is proposing weakening inspections in this sector.

The work was led by the University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group (OEHRG) along with researchers at Queen’s University Management School.

Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the OEHRG at Stirling and a co-investigator on the project, said: “Many of the women included in the study were exposed to a virtual toxic soup of chemicals. Untangling work and wider factors in the possible causes of breast cancer is an important global issue.”


Industry and increase in risk of developing breast cancer:

  • Plastics: double the risk
  • Food tinning: double the risk
  • Bars, casinos and racecourses: double the risk
  • Metalworking: 73% increase
  • Farming: 36% increase

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